On a Friday at the NFL Combine in early March, a throng of around 100 media members encircled Sam Darnold at a podium in a ballroom at the Indiana Convention Center. The league set up Darnold’s press conference at Podium No. 1, the site for all of the highest-profile prospects. About 150 feet away was the quarterback who’d just beaten him.
J.T. Barrett did not have a big crowd around him. It was mostly members of the Ohio State media, because the Buckeyes’ press corps is about the size of the White House’s. Barrett was perched at Podium No. 5 — a far cry from the Siberia of Podiums 7 and 8 on another side of the room, but not where the NFL puts players who are about to get drafted early.
“Obviously, people have their opinion about who fits better in the NFL, and that’s fine,” Barrett told SB Nation from his perch. “I haven’t paid much attention to it, honestly. The one thing I can do is present J.T. Barrett the best I can.”
Barrett will not be among the top group of QBs drafted.
His last game in scarlet and gray was a 24-7 cruise past Darnold’s USC in the Cotton Bowl. That was Barrett’s 38th win as Ohio State’s starter, a record at one of the sport’s great programs. Barrett’s yardage and touchdown totals in Columbus were huge, too. Barrett’s downfield passing was up and down, to put it generously, but he mastered Urban Meyer’s spread-to-run offense and helped the Buckeyes be elite every season. He makes frequent appearances not just in the Buckeyes’ record book, but the Big Ten’s.
He’s also the only three-time captain in OSU history. The next person who is anything less than glowing about his leadership will be the first. But Barrett is the latest case study in how little NFL teams care about any of that.
“J.T. Barrett is a hard one for me because I love the kid,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call before the combine. “I got to meet him a little bit at the East-West game. You can see the leadership attributes. Everything you want in the quarterback he has, except for the high-level talent.”
Barrett is “an ideal backup or third quarterback” who can “play in the league for a lot of years,” Mayock added. To even be that, he’ll have to get more accurate on long throws.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper was less charitable.
“I think he’s a developmental guy. His passing skills, accuracy, and decision-making, that’s the big question mark,” he said. “I’d probably look at him more as an undrafted free agent.”
It will be an upset if Barrett comes off the board before the sixth or seventh round. Kiper could turn out to be correct, and Barrett might not get drafted at all.
One thing about Barrett’s future is clear, though. He’s a quarterback.
Asking a potential first-round QB to change positions often boils down to casual racism. For fringe players with little chance of being NFL starting QBs, though, a position switch might simply offer a better path to a job. But Barrett doesn’t quite fit either description.
Lamar Jackson is obviously a QB and not a receiver, too, but Jackson’s electrifying physical gifts are at least one basis for the terrible idea that he leave the position where he won the Heisman Trophy two seasons ago. Barrett ran a slower 40-yard dash (4.70 seconds) than all but one receiver at the combine. At 6’1 and 224 pounds (and a bit lanky), he’s awkwardly sized to play running back, a spot where former USF quarterback Quinton Flowers worked out in Indianapolis.
It’s not just that. Barrett believes in himself at quarterback, and so do the people around him. Given all he’s achieved at that position, why shouldn’t they feel that way?
“J.T. a quarterback, man,” one Ohio State teammate, defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes, told me. “He’s athletic enough to escape the pocket and make plays as a quarterback. I see him as a quarterback in the NFL. He won a lot of games for as at Ohio State. He broke a lot of quarterback records at Ohio State. So I really don’t see him moving nowhere else, but he is an athlete, too. I feel like he’s a quarterback first and an athlete second.”
College spread offenses have more in common with NFL schemes now than ever before. The Buckeyes frequently deployed Barrett as a runner, but he tends to get shortchanged for his passing ability. Barrett’s college passer rating was 152.3, and better during his freshman and senior years than the two in the middle. His was 15 points better than Josh Allen’s, less than two points worse than Sam Darnold’s, and seven points worse than Mason Rudolph’s.
NFL teams don’t draft on that, either. Maybe they shouldn’t. But it would be a mistake to cast off Barrett now as someone who can’t make NFL throws.
Once the draft passes, Barrett is going to do what he’s always done.
He’ll try to surprise people and earn playing time. Barrett wasn’t supposed to start at Ohio State during the Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship season, but he swooped into action when Braxton Miller was lost for the season before their first game. After Barrett got hurt in the last game of OSU’s regular season and watched from the sidelines while Cardale Jones won the Big Ten title game and College Football Playoff, he could’ve been a backup again. But it didn’t take long for him to retake the starting job from Jones in 2015.
When Barrett was injured during Ohio State’s 2017 game at Michigan, a four-star redshirt freshman replaced him and outplayed him. But Barrett always returned to the spotlight. He was back for the Big Ten Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl after that, both Ohio State victories.
At Podium No. 5, someone asked Barrett if he had any expectation of where he’d go in the draft. Barrett must know he won’t be a high pick, but that’s not his problem.
“Not really,” he said. “Wherever that is, I’m not putting too much thought on it, understanding that’s not when the work stops. There’s a lot of hype into the draft and workouts and I think that’s very important but also understand that’s when the work begins. You’ve got to go out and make sure you make that 53-man roster when the time comes.”
Barrett has no guarantees, but he has a chance. So far, a chance is all he’s ever needed.